How to read and understand a scientific paper

Scientific Literacy is required for citizenship. We cannot understand the proposals to fix our problems if we can’t tell what is true and what isn’t.

Science is a methodology. It’s about trying to figure out what is objectively true. To do that scientists use various methods to try and test for what really is happening and account for bias and other things that might be impacting whatever it is they are looking at.  Some scientists do this better than others.
This is why scientists submit their work to peer review and everyone else in their field critiques their work looking for problems. It seems adversarial, but, we all have biases and we all miss things and having other people double checking our work for mistakes helps catch mistakes. This is a good thing and something we all should welcome.

When something is reported in the news, journalists and others report what the study says. But what happens if the journalist isn’t scientifically literate? Or the editor has biases and wants a big splashy headline?  When that happens, the headlines may not be supported by the paper or the findings.

Because our lives literally depend on science it’s important that we become scientifically literate, meaning we must all learn how to read reports and papers and make judgements about whether what they are claiming is likely. We need to learn to be skeptical. In other words, we need to learn to think like a scientist, and look for reasons why the study doesn’t say what it purports to say.

I am linking to an article about how to read and understand a scientific paper for non-scientists.

First things first. Get the actual paper. If you are reading an article about a study – link through to the study. Eventually you will get to a pdf put out by the scientist or their university.  It will look something like this:

On this page – you should be able to download the entire paper or read the summary and introduction, methods used and key takeaways. If the key takeaways are different from reported, congratulations, you’ve passed step one.

Next, look for caveats to the findings. Scientists will always tell you what the limits of their findings are and how they aren’t valid in all sorts of situations they didn’t control for. Knowing what this paper doesn’t say – is useful and will help prevent you from believing the hype about whatever the paper is about.

Now, read the article. Yes, they are long. Yes, they use all sorts of terms that may seem complicated. But, you won’t be able to tell whether you agree with their conclusions if you don’t. And, they are often very fascinating because of things that are down deep in the data. For instance, the paper I linked to makes claims at the top that seem a bit outrageous, but as you read through and realize how they got there-  it makes sense.

If you aren’t sure whether a method used by the researchers is problematic – go and look for critiques. Not political critiques, scientific critiques. Politicians try to debunk science they don’t like all the time. They may be correct, but they may not be. Often, they are just spouting propaganda -and cherry picking the evidence. You want to know what is true and whether you can trust the politician so find out what other actual scientists say and remain skeptical.

Good luck – our society depends on all of us getting this right.

When someone lies – leadership edition

For me there is nothing more frustrating and disappointing than an employee who lies. 

Not only has the person proven to me they are untrustworthy, they also prevented a problem from being solved. I’m not sure which is worse.

 I have zero tolerance for liars in the workplace.  Once I have verified that they lied to me, I fire them. I don’t have the time or energy or money to fix the problems they create. It is already hard enough to fix the problems our company solves, whatever that is, without having to do double duty fixing the additional problems caused by someone who lies.

 I don’t care what the lie is. If they didn’t finish a project or can’t – tell me so we can work around it and fix the problem. Don’t tell me its going to get done and then not do it and then lie about why you didn’t do it.

 How should a leader handle this?  Professionally. First, trust but verify. Don’t assume they are lying. Find out. Do your diligence. Find out if what they are telling you is true or not. If they are telling the truth, deal with the problem and ask them to come to you for help so these things don’t get out of control.

 If they lied, say goodbye. 

But what if it’s a co-manager. Not someone who works for you but one of your colleagues?  Then you have a real problem. This is very common with passive aggressive people. I again, take a trust but verify approach. It’s all about documentation so that they can’t get away with their lies anymore.

If you have a verbal agreement, write it down and ask them to confirm via email your understanding of the agreement. That way – when they don’t do what they said they were going to do – you are no longer in a he said she said situation. 

I like to approach this as me trying to fix a communication problem. I don’t call them out as a liar. It is entirely possible I am the problem. So – I confirm and double check and put everything in writing so that the communication problems we are having are sorted out before too much work gets done. If they lie – they will be caught. And I don’t have to argue with them or accuse them of anything. I just let them dig their own hole if that’s what they want to do.

Never stoop to their level. Never make it personal. It isn’t. Either people are professional (which means ethical, honest and responsible) or they aren’t. If they aren’t, do what you need to do to protect the work (not yourself – the work), because solving problems ethically, responsibly and honestly is what good leadership is all about.
I have a short program on the principles of Humanistic Management for $15 if you are interested in learning more about the what and whys of how professionalism impact collaborative problem solving.

Humanism and Libertarianism: Are they compatible?

Not really.

At the risk of pissing off some of my libertarian leaning friends and fans, I personally don’t think libertarianism is compatible with Humanism.  In concept, they should ally with one another. Individual liberty. Yeah, we Humanists love that.  We just don’t love it when it stands alone.  

Humanists embrace the concept of embedded autonomy, where the individual is embedded in a community. If the community thrives, they thrive. As a result, as individuals, we encourage people to be responsible to the communities in which they live.  Our goal is to create a better place for ourselves and for everyone else. 

This is what enlightened self-interest is all about. Self-interest without concern for others is just selfishness.

There is a really great article debunking libertarianism over at the Evonomics blog:

The list several problems with libertarianism. First, their idea of what humans are is flawed. Humans are not rational actors that will chose to maximize their gain while doing minimal harm to others. Ideally yes, we would, but in reality, we don’t. When we go selfish, we go short term. Short term problem solving discounts future harm and increases the value of current gain. Which is a fancy way of saying the value system is lopsided and there is no incentive to self-correct and take into account the the negative impact our actions may have on others.

For a Humanist like me, I think it’s out of balance and I would rather balance my autonomy with my responsibilities to others. I think this yield better results for me as an individual in both the short and long term.

Another way it seems to go off course is it discounts and diminishes our natural desire to act cooperatively. Humans are tribal animals. We like to work together. Individual is fine, but only to a point. Again, it’s not a realistic or healthy view of who we are as a species and as individuals.  I understand not wanting to be coerced into cooperation, but voluntarily cooperating with others in our community is what creates communities.  Cooperation is a good thing. Self-interest alone doesn’t encourage us to cooperate and the case studies of businesses and countries that have adopted Libertarian principles of government are proof of how badly things go when community investment and cooperation is eliminated and discouraged. Read the article for the details. It’s not good.

Which brings me to the last thing. It doesn’t work. This is one of those things that seems good on paper, but in reality-  leads to horrendous results, both for individuals and for the communities in which they live. At the end of the day, Humanists go with what is proven to work. And Libertarianism has proven, it doesn’t work.

As a Humanist, I celebrate individualism, but I am also firmly committed to being of service to my community. I get frustrated whenever I talk to libertarians who argue against voluntarily joining to pay for things like hospitals or schools or things like that. I understand philosophically why they are making that argument, but the level of selfishness that it exhibits is horrifying to me as a Humanist. I want to help. I want to pay taxes and purchase things collectively that help our community. I want to purchase health care for myself and my neighbors. I want to purchase schools for our kids and libraries. I like paying for cops and fire departments. These benefit not just me, but everyone.

The concept that everyone should be out for themselves and their own – lacks compassion. It’s selfishness rationalized.  And it really doesn’t seem very humanistic to me.  What are your thoughts?

To learn more - consider taking this free online course - Why Humanistic Management

Is a Humanist an Atheist?

The answer is not necessarily.

A  humanist approaches the world in a secular way. Problem solving etc are done without the aid of supernaturalism (and that means without the aid of gods). There are lots of people who believe in supernatural things but chose to approach life secularly anyway. These people would be pragmatically a-theist, but not theistically a-theist.

However, Humanism, as a term, was coined to describe a specifically non-theistic, non-religious approach to living well and ethically. Our morality is unapologetically grounded in human compassion and we don't appeal to gods or supernaturalism at all in our moral reasoning.  Lots of people of faith agree with this approach to morality and problem solving and find that it blends well with their theism. For instance, people who have taken my Living Made SImpler course and read my books tell me that it provides additional grounding for the theistic morality they hold. But because the word Humanism is a specifically secular approach and because there is no other term to describe such an ethical approach, people of faith who share this value system describe themselves as being humanistic as opposed to humanist.  Meaning, they agree with humanism, but are still religious or theistic in some way. 

As a result there are groups for Humanistic Judaism, Humanistic Christianity, Humanistic Islam and humanistic whatever.  A Humanist is someone who is secular and therefore not religious.  Someone who is humanistic - approaches whatever their theistic beliefs are in a humanistic way.  

To learn more about Humanism consider getting my book: The Handy Humanism Handbook
or check out this online course: Living Made Simpler
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